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NASCAR keeps tinkering with officiating

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NASCAR officials spent the early part of this week meeting in Charlotte, N.C., trying to figure out how to solve the embarrassing officiating problems that have struck Nextel Cup races the past three weeks.

In Charlotte, N.C., a caution light mistakenly blinked on and off when a NASCAR official "may have inadvertently bumped the switch with his knee."

In Dover, Del., NASCAR needed a 24-lap caution to figure out the running order on the track and settle arguments with the competing teams who disagreed with NASCAR's rulings.

And, last weekend in Long Pond, Pa., an official showed a green flag denoting pit road was open when it was actually supposed to be closed.

In that race, the dominating leader at the time, Jimmie Johnson, recovered and won, but his teammate and car owner, Jeff Gordon, who felt his own chance for victory was wiped out by the mistake, was furious.

"I want to congratulate NASCAR for completely screwing up this race," Gordon said immediately afterward.

Since then, NASCAR has been criticized by fans, race teams and the media, including three-time Cup champion and Fox television analyst Darrell Waltrip, who said the sanctioning body's recent actions remind him of "a race team going to the racetrack and doing [research and development] work every week. They're falling out of races. They are not a contender because they keep doing this R&D; stuff."

Johnson said the situation has become confusing to fans.

"It has to be. ... It's confusing for everyone," he said. "Pretty soon when you watch a race you'll need a rulebook to be a good spectator."

At meetings Monday and Tuesday, NASCAR's executives worked on finding answers.

"We are certainly aware when you have mistakes like this, whether from bad luck or human error, that they can affect credibility with fans," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter.

Beginning this weekend at the DHL 400 in Brooklyn, Mich., NASCAR will shift responsibility for making calls on opening or closing the pits.

"The race director is now going to take the responsibility for that call," said Hunter. "He'll radio the flag man -- the pits are now open, the pits are now closed. We're going to accept the responsibility in the tower, as opposed to having it be a decision the pit road official would make on his own."

The pit road situation is not the sport's only problem. Making sure the new electronic timing and scoring equipment does its job properly, handling the lengths of cautions better, finding ways to consistently finish races under green, trying to avoid further confusion by piling one rule on top of another -- these are all issues.

"I can see where you can keep going and going and going to the point of mass confusion," said driver Jeremy Mayfield. "Maybe [NASCAR] needs to stop and come back a little bit and figure out a simpler way of doing it."

Hunter said NASCAR hopes to have many problems solved by the Pepsi 400 at Daytona Beach, Fla., July 3, when it plans to make presentations to the drivers and the media.

The officiating problems date to NASCAR's decision last September to stop cars from racing back to the start/finish line when a caution flag comes out. That's when timing and scoring became more difficult due to NASCAR's ruling the running order of the cars would be frozen when the flag appeared.

"That rule needed to be put in," car owner Ray Evernham said during a conference call this week. "We had to stop racing back to the caution, because sooner or later somebody was going to get hurt or worse. ... I agree with them changing that rule ... but when they're not consistent, I think they lose some credibility."

NASCAR president Mike Helton apologized after the Charlotte incident, after the Dover incident -- announcing a new, computerized scoring system would be used beginning last weekend -- and, again, after the Pocono incident

"Our president," said Hunter, "is very tired of apologizing. Officials have to be accountable, and it's bugging Mike big time. The competitors have his ear, and his ear is starting to look like a heavyweight boxer has been chewing on it."

Evernham, who fields cars for Mayfield and Kasey Kahne, spoke for many.

"NASCAR is a big organization," said Evernham, "and if we're going to continue to take our rightful place with the other professional sports, specifically the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, we've got to make sure we show that level of professionalism.

"NASCAR is very professional in some ways, and I think in other ways it's been a little bit of a fiasco. ... It just can't continue like this."

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